Fairfax County high school science teacher Larry Gaudreault held up a thumb-sized plastic vial yesterday, hoping its contents would tell him he was about to duplicate the experiments of Nobel Prize-winning scientists in altering the genetic code of life.
"We got some," Gaudreault, science department chairman at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, told his lab partner, Mount Vernon High School teacher David Givens. "You see that little white spot at the bottom? That's plasmid."
Plasmid is a fragment of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the building block of life. Gaudreault's experiment was aimed at cutting and pasting that fragment with others and introducing them into bacterial cells, thus altering the bacteria's characteristics.
It is leading-edge biotechnology, the likes of which rarely makes its way into a public school. Gaudreault, Givens and 19 other area high school science teachers spent the week ending yesterday in the biotechnology laboratory at Thomas Jefferson High in Fairfax County learning the basics of the fermenting field of what is called recombinant DNA research.
Recombinant DNA technology has enabled scientists to make insulin for diabetics, manufacture human growth hormone, isolate the genetic causes of some inherited diseases and create products to help crops resist drought and frost.
Those sophisticated discoveries are not possible at the high school level, but spokesmen for the workshop's sponsor, Long Island's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said the intention is to bring science education up to date with recent discoveries. The laboratory is sending a van around the country for a three-month project to educate more than 250 biology teachers. Twice as many apply for the workshop as can be accepted.
The $10,000 cost of the Northern Virginia visit was underwritten by the National Science Foundation and Life Technologies Inc.
"There's a revolution going on in biology, but the way biology is being taught in most high schools is like history," said Mark Bloom, the laboratory's DNA Literacy Program manager.
"You need a public who is aware of this technology so they don't have a blind trust in scientists or believe that it's voodoo."
Bloom, who taught the week-long workshop, brought with him a high-priced arsenal of equipment, including $1,000 centrifuges the size of toaster ovens that spin at 12,000 times the force of gravity, and $180 digital pipets that enable scientists to measure an amount of liquid equal to 1 percent of a teardrop.
He also carted along a few tips from the front, including the advice that 1,250-watt blow dryers are more effective in quickly evaporating liquid from a vial than the traditional method of waving one's hands over the vial to create a breeze.
"The best-dressed biologist carries one of these wherever he goes," joked a white-coated teacher, holding a shocking pink hair dryer over a tube of liquid.
The high school teachers who came in during their vacation to attend the workshop said it would help them speak with more authority to their students on recent discoveries in biology.
"They ask questions all the time about the new technology and now I can answer them competently," said West Springfield High School teacher Felicia Perdue. Perdue is lucky; her school has enough equipment to perform some limited DNA experiments and she plans to introduce the subject to her advanced students.
Perdue carefully inserted a pipet into a vial of liquid as her lab partner, teacher Kathy Turner of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, watched.
"This is fun," Turner said. "Isn't it fun?"
"Yeah," replied Perdue, cautiously drawing up a few drops of liquid. She smiled. "It's fun."
Added Gaudreault: "This is when teachers get to play."